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Tuesday
Jun192012

Broken but not Beaten

My name is Bob Pankratz and I am an “at high risk biker.”  If you met me on the street you would not know that and if I told you; you might not understand what I mean. Basically, without specialized bikes it is no longer safe for me to ride the way I like to, which is fast, on hills and for long hours.  On a traditonal bike I would be at a high risk for injury, but more on that in a bit. Since my journey back to riding is just beginning, we should first cover some ancient history to provide perspective on how: adaptive cycling technologies are giving me back the wheels I have loved since I was a kid.

Over the years in casual conversations with my fellow cyclists, I have found an interesting trend. Those of us that grew up in the 1970’s suburbia share a deep-seated sentiment for our first real bicycles. Mine was red; it was heavy; and I had it for far too long. I did unspeakable things to it and irresponsible things with it. Whether I was converting it to a dirt bike, or sending it on far too many ghost rides; that bike was abused and loved in equal parts. It was my gateway to independence, and it will forever hold a special place in my mind. It cemented my love for biking.

Today’s youth still experience the thrill of jumping on a bike and riding off by themselves, but in the 70’s, in our sprawling neighborhoods, your bike was truly “the thing”. In those days there were no soccer Mom’s with mini-vans. If your Mom stayed home chances are you only had 1 car and Dad took that to work most days. If you did have 2 cars, well then.... this was the peak of the energy crisis which meant you simply did not drive the car if you could avoid it. Either your family could not afford it; or gas rationing meant you did not waste it. 

If you wanted to go do something or be somewhere you road your bike. If someone’s Mother needed something from the store; a biker gang of kids (sans the leathers) would pilgrimage to the store to get the supplies. This was the age of the kid’s bike. We did not lock up our bikes, or wear helmets. We took our reflectors off and we put playing cards into our spokes with clothespins. We built ramps we were not suppose-to and jumped our heavy steal frames a whole 2 feet into the air. On a good day we might even pump up our tires assuming, that darn Schrader value wasn’t clogged with mud.

During my youthful immortality years, I never stopped to pay attention to the fact that I crashed a lot, but looking back I certainly did. Here are some highlights.  On the day I learned how to ride with out training wheels, I failed to learn how to stop and I required an assist from a telephone pole. When I was 8 or 9 I borrowed grandpa’s bike and while coming down the big hill near the house I watched the front tire come off and proceed to roll down the hill without my bike. Moments later the now empty forks and asphalt introduced me to the concept of catapulting. By the time I was 11 I learned how to sprint to escape from the pursuit of pigtails and braces; and at the same moment I learned that slamming on just the front break at high speed does not make the chaser shoot past you... Well actually, it does; but it also leaves you lying on the ground watching your fancy 10-speed bike fly over your head and bounce on the concrete. Finally at 13 the newly minted teenager found out that if you try to free your pants from the chain on the way to school and stop looking forward; it is indeed possible to hit a parked car. Imagine my disappointment when I learned that after the dentist fixes your teeth, they send you back to school.  

In high school, I parked my bike and traded it for the freedom a car provided. However, a mere 4 years later, In college, I went back to biking for a girl and stayed because I enjoyed the recreation for myself. I have been riding steady ever since. 

When you consider all that, it’s safe to say I have been riding bikes for most of my life. Fortunately for me when I came back to biking I left the crashes behind. Unfortunately, I brought my perceived immortality with me. 

The problems with riding a bike for a long time is you become very comfortable with the machine and riding it. I grew up in the era of no helmets and I was set in my ways. I steadfastly refused to wear one of those “ugly, uncomfortable wind sails” for years because I didn’t fall any more; I knew how to handle a bike. Besides look at all those crashes I had as a child, those never killed me, so why bother. My friends had all started to wear them, but I ignored them.I continued to ride for close to 15 years without a helmet; finally relenting when my children learned to bike because I needed to be a good example.

Long time cyclists, will all tell you that there is one truth: If you ride bikes, you will fall off. It is just something we accept. Heck, most of us have been falling off from the time we learned to ride. I certainly excelled at it as a child. Nevertheless, for 27 years I road without crashing, and in-spite of that I did wear the helmet for the last 12 religiously. 

All good things end; when it was my turn to crash I did it subtle and quick. I wasn’t hit by a car, I didn’t get tied up with a fellow biker, I didn’t slip in a curve or in the rain and I didn’t get doored. Instead, I was on a solo ride on a summer day. I crested a small hill, and was accelerating back down it. That is when the forks on my bike simply failed.

Top half & frameBottom half & tireThey cracked halfway up on both side; and at 28mph my front tire was gone and the concrete was there. The crash was over in a second, and so were my upright road biking days. My helmet saved my life; it shattered; my skull did not.

I was very fortunate; I crashed just as I was leaving a small city; and witnesses called for help that arrived in moments. The first responder actually lived across the street from my crash. The most traumatic event during my journey to the hospital was trying to convince them not to cut off my biking shoes because I honestly thought I’d be riding the next week. Shock is a very surreal experience and bike shoes are expensive after all. The ER staff simple could not figure out the one way ratchet on my shoes, but I managed to talk them through removing them. 

 

Day 2 post crashIn the end, my neck had two fractures at C1 and C2 at the base of my skull. In my case they are non-operable injuries.  I did not need a halo, but I would spent 3-4 months in a neck brace hoping for the best and another 3-4 months building back up any semblance of strength in those neck muscles. 

Today the neck has healed as much as it ever will and it is now just shy of two years since the crash. Ironically, I broke my collarbone the following summer jogging, mostly because I tried to protect my neck during a fall; and had to spend another 9 months healing back up. My family has threatened that might next bike will be a gerbil ball.

So now my bike journey starts over. At this point I could choose to ride a road bike same as I always have. Nobody is stopping me. Honestly, If I could ride at equal risk to the day before the crash; I would most certainly do it. However, my neck is still weaker than it should be, the hairline fractures are still there, and it gets sore even if I ride at 5-10mph with the family. Add on top of that the collarbone now gets sore from the pressure of traditional handlebars. So I choose not to ride a road bike any longer, in-fact for the last 2 years I was resigned to never riding anything fast again..

Now thanks to Adaptive Cycling trends and technologies and the support of my Family. I have discovered that I have lots of options. (It’s all Michael’s fault). As of now I am just starting my second biking journey, my road bike is gone and now I am riding a CatTrike 700. 

The trike solves all my needs: (1) I get to ride very low to the ground minimizing any chance of a silly type neck injury and the piece of mind not to worry about it. (2) The seat position of the bike supports my neck and collarbone in a completely painless manner. (3) Riding on the trike I am back to the same general risks I had prior to the crash; risks I find acceptable. 

Lastly and most importantly the bike is fast, it’s cool and I get to continue to do something that I’ve enjoyed all my life; riding free, under my own power, and on my own terms. I think this is going to be fun, and we are going to document some of the things I discover as I go. I know a lot about biking and nothing about trikes so I suspect some surprises on the way. We will try to share the interesting and helpful stuff as I discover it. 

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